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Senate gives late-night OK to limiting document releases

SANTA FE — The New Mexico Senate late Wednesday gave final passage to a new legislative rule to limit public release of lawmakers’ documents and emails.

The move to adopt House Concurrent Resolution 1 came as the Senate’s last item of business around 11:20 p.m.  The chamber adopted the new rule 39-1 without debate.

The new rule stipulates that legislators act only as a body during public floor or committee sessions and, therefore, actions of an individual lawmaker are private, according to the rule’s sponsor, House Minority Leader Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs. Bratton has said his intent in sponsoring the rule change is to keep private lawmakers’ documents and emails.

“The way I view it is this is a constitutional issue and a right of privacy,” Bratton said during a hearing on the rule change last week. “Unless they (the general public) want to go to court and get a court order to listen in on my telephone conversations or monitor my email traffic, they have no right to that.”

Supporters of the rule change have cited a unique constitutional immunity for legislators that, they say, allows documents to be withheld. The rule requires the Legislative Council Service to establish procedures on how lawmakers’ records are made public.

Attorney General Gary King’s Office this week warned that the immunity does not apply to concealing public documents. King said the Legislature must create a special exemption to the state Inspection of Public Records Act if it intends to shield legislators’ documents and emails from public view.

Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, was the only senator to vote against the rule change.

“I just felt that it was important to be consistent with my voting pattern (for) transparency, dealing with all the issues we deal with … to provide that information if it’s requested,” Campos said.

Now having passed the House and Senate, the legislative rule takes effect. Gov. Susana Martinez does not have authority over legislative rules.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government opposed the rule change.

“We’re very disappointed that the Legislature has taken this step toward secrecy,” said FOG Executive Director Gwyneth Doland. “But it is only one step in a long process that will surely involve the courts, and we will continue to fight for openness and transparency at every level of government.”

Approval of the rule change on the Senate floor late Wednesday came a day after the chamber removed the proposal from the Senate Rules Committee without it being heard there. That brought the resolution directly to the Senate floor.

Emails to and from government officials became part of an ongoing political feud between liberal and conservative interests during the 2012 election season, sparking the Legislature to take action this session to create rules on how documents and emails would be released.